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Group working to save destroyed Black cemetery frustrated with city task force

WTSP-TV Tampa-St. Petersburg logo WTSP-TV Tampa-St. Petersburg 5/21/2022 Emerald Morrow
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Board members of a nonprofit working to restore a destroyed Black cemetery in Tampa expressed frustration after learning details of an internal city cemetery task force that appeared to keep meetings among city staffers and invited guests.

“I had no idea that the city was meeting internally to discuss what this report focused on,” Fred Hearns said after sharing a 10 Investigates story about the task force with the Zion Cemetery Preservation & Maintenance Society during a board meeting Thursday.

Hearns is president of the non-profit, which formed after archaeologists from Cardno and the University of South Florida found close to 300 graves from Zion Cemetery under apartments at the Tampa Housing Authority’s Robles Park Village, Sunstate Wrecker Service and a Columbia Restaurant Group warehouse.

The City of Tampa encouraged community leaders to create the nonprofit and offered legal services so it could receive a $50,000 city donation for a memorial to honor Zion, a segregation-era cemetery that was erased, sold and re-parceled for redevelopment in the 1950s.

However, Hearns said there was no direct communication to the Zion board about the city’s internal cemetery task force, even though the Zion discovery was the catalyst for its creation.

Through public records requests, 10 Investigates learned the group began formally meeting roughly twice a month starting in August. Conversations centered around Zion Cemetery and others within the city’s limits.

Tampa’s cemetery task force leader Ocea Wynn said the group also worked to advance land use policies as it relates to city-owned cemeteries.

Attorneys with the Florida First Amendment Foundation said this raises concerns about transparency and the Sunshine Law.

RELATED: Tampa’s internal cemetery task force raises transparency concerns

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“The purpose of the Sunshine Law is to open up the entire decision-making process and to avoid evasive devices,” said Virginia Hamrick, staff attorney with the First Amendment Foundation. “If there is a question of…whether a discussion should take place in the public, the attorney general and courts have said committees should err on the side of access…”

City officials said while the task force meetings are not publicly noticed, they are not closed to the public. However, it was unclear how members of the public would know when the meetings were happening if they weren’t publicly noticed.

“Staffers who work for officials are not subject to the Sunshine Law, only the public officials are subject to the Sunshine Law,” said Pamela Marsh, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. “But once an advisory group is created, advisory groups, even ad hoc groups are subject to the Sunshine Law and can be considered acting as an alter ego of the commission or the official.”

Task force meeting summaries obtained through public records requests say members of the task force did have meetings with Hearns and other members of the Zion board.

RELATED: After defeat, Tampa lawmakers vow to push abandoned Black cemeteries bill in next session

However, board members say they still did not know about the task force, and would like to be present for meetings that address issues concerning Zion.

“Any committee within the city…when they are discussing these cemeteries that they’re finding, is there any possible way they can let us know about these type of things? I would like to actually be present on-site, if possible,” said board member Reva Iman. “The city owes this to us.”

Emerald Morrow is a reporter with 10 Tampa Bay. Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also email her at emorrow@10TampaBay.com. To read more about the search for lost African American burial grounds in the Tampa Bay area, head to wtsp.com/erased.

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